Secretary of Education Rod Paige reaffirmed his support for public schools and the traditional separation of church and state at a press briefing April 9, attempting to quell a furor over earlier, published remarks in which he praised the “strong value system” at Christian schools.
In a hastily arranged news conference at the Department of Education, the secretary rejected calls for him to apologize, or even resign, as a result of comments that appeared in a Baptist publication two days earlier.
“I don’t think I have anything to apologize for,” Mr. Paige said. “What I’m doing is clarifying those remarks.”
But the education secretary also adopted a largely conciliatory tone in addressing the controversy, saying his personal beliefs had “no connection to how I perform my duties” as a Cabinet member.
Mr. Paige drew an angry response from numerous members of Congress, as well as advocacy organizations, for comments he made in an April 7 story in the Baptist Press, a national news service serving Southern Baptists.
“The reason that Christian schools and Christian universities are growing is a result of a strong value system,” Mr. Paige said. “In a religious environment the value system is set. That’s not the case in a public school where there are so many different kinds of values.”
In a earlier section of the story, the secretary said: “All things equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community, where a child is taught to have a strong faith.”
Education Department officials said the latter quote was taken out of context. They released a transcript in which the Baptist Press interviewer asked Mr. Paige if he could choose among Christian, private, and public colleges and universities. “Who do you think has the best deal?” he was asked.
But much of the criticism centered on Mr. Paige’s statement about public schools’ having “so many different kinds of values” in comparison with Christian schools. Critics said it seemed the secretary was implying that religious diversity hurt public education.
Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United For Separation of Church and State, based in Washington, called on the education secretary to retract his statements or resign, saying it sounded as though Mr. Paige supported “Christianizing” the public schools.
“There are so many different kinds of kids in public schools, with so many different kinds of values,” Mr. Lynn said. “His answer should not be to force Christian beliefs, or his personal beliefs, on the public schools.”
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, asked Mr. Paige in a letter to repudiate his comments. “By expressing your preference for schools that teach the values of a single faith, you send an unacceptable signal that some families and children are favored over others because of their faith,” Sen. Kennedy wrote.
In the Baptist Press story, Secretary Paige spoke repeatedly about the importance of religion in his life and his public duties.
“My faith in God is not a separate part of me,” he was quoted as saying. “I can’t do that.” To those who would criticize his view that religion has a place in public schools, Mr. Paige reportedly added, “I would offer critics my prayers.” In explaining his comments to reporters later, Mr. Paige sought to clarify his views.
“I understand completely and respect the separation between church and state,” he said. “I have a record that attests to this.” He added that he hadn’t meant to disparage the religious diversity of public schools, or their performance in general.
While saying he supported character education and magnet programs, he said he wasn’t encouraging parents or students to choose private schools. “I’m a strong supporter of parental options” in choosing schools, he said.
Mr. Paige is a member of the Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston, and an inactive deacon there, a spokeswoman for the church said. Mr. Paige was tapped by President Bush to head the Department of Education after serving as the superintendent of the Houston public schools, the seventh-largest system in the country.
The Washington-based advocacy group People for the American Way said Mr. Paige’s statements raised troubling questions about the motives behind the legal guidelines the Bush Administration issued Feb. 7 on the legal use of religious expression in public schools.
But others said Mr. Paige’s comments were being distorted, and did not amount to promotion of one type of faith in the schools over another.
“It’s an innocent statement by a decent and honorable man that was taken out of context,” said GOP Rep. John A. Boehner, of Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
William Merrell, a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, a Nashville, Tenn., organization whose members worship in more than 42,000 churches nationwide, said the criticism amounted to “anti-Christian drivel.”
“We would agree with virtually everything he had to say,” Mr. Merrell said of Secretary Paige.
Mathew D. Staver, the president and general counsel of the Liberty Counsel, a legal organization that has defended religious expression in public schools, said critics were too eager to cry foul “any time the word ‘religion’ is used” in connection with education.
“I don’t think a leader can just turn a blind eye to those problems within the system,” said Mr. Staver, whose organization is based in Orlando, Fla. “Otherwise, we’re just looking for somebody to toe the party line, as our system rots from within.”